“No better investment than in knowledge and knowledge creation”
“Radboud University wants to contribute to a healthy, free world with equal opportunities for everyone”, says Daniël Wigboldus, chair of the Executive Board. “In so doing, we want to be significant both regionally and internationally. That ambition is set out in our strategy, under the title A Significant Impact.”
The strategy includes several focal points, and Wigboldus is positive about the progress made on them over the past year. “For example, we have vigorously pursued the embedding of sustainability issues in the curricula of all study programmes.” The Executive Board has also put great effort into creating a safe and inclusive campus where all students and staff feel they belong and can play a role. The Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Strategic Plan was published in 2022.
The university has also been hard at work on another strategic theme: collaboration. “For example, we signed collaboration agreements with Maastricht University, regional schools, the municipality of Nijmegen, and Alliander”, Wigboldus explains. “By doing so, we encourage interdisciplinary research. We also do that in other ways. We have been assigned several large growth fund projects, and major grants have been awarded to Radboud researchers across the spectrum of sciences.” In 2022, Radboud University also signed the ‘Inclusion in 2040’ covenant with the municipality of Nijmegen. In it, they pledged to work together to make Nijmegen an inclusive, accessible city.
The lingering after-effects of the pandemic
It is all the more remarkable that so many significant steps have been taken, given the inauspicious start to the academic year. “We chose ‘freedom’ as the theme for the 2021-2022 academic year, hoping we could leave the pandemic behind in 2021”, says Rector Magnificus Han van Krieken. That was overly optimistic. The pandemic remained a dominant factor in the first half of 2022. “Partly because of the pandemic, we had to postpone several major projects stemming from the strategy adopted in 2019, such as the Vision for Education and the Campus Plan. And the impact of the pandemic highlights two other themes: the mental wellbeing of students and the pressures experienced by teachers and staff. We are still seeing the after-effects of that. So the pandemic had quite an impact, and it continues to have one to this day for students and staff with long COVID symptoms.” Agnes Muskens, who joined the Executive Board as vice chair in January 2022, also identifies the mental health of both students and staff as a crucial point of attention over the past year: “HR has launched several initiatives to support our staff, such as a pilot project with extra psychologists on campus. And all faculties did their utmost to keep our students engaged during and after the lockdown. That was desperately needed.”
Looking out for each other
Wigboldus wholeheartedly agrees with that. “The final lockdown was particularly tough on many students”, he says. “As the pandemic wore on, everyone started to feel like: ‘Here we go again...’. Psychology talks about the concept of learned helplessness. If you feel you can do something to change an unpleasant situation, you remain motivated to change it. But if you feel that it’s just happening to you and you have no ability to do anything about it, that’s bad for your mental wellbeing in the long run. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of many, we as a university were able to arrange many things in such a way that the lockdowns and the adjustments that accompanied them went pretty smoothly organisationally, despite everything. But I am very happy that in the 2022-2023 academic year, we can again be the university we want to be.
“As a board, we tried to communicate at key moments, but otherwise, it was mainly the supervisors in the departments who kept in touch with our students and staff. Collectively, we looked at what was possible within the applicable measures for people who wanted to come to campus, and what was possible for those who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to do that. We wanted to accommodate both sides in consultation.”
“I am very happy that in this academic year, we can again be the university we want to be”
100 years of Radboud University
We are looking forward to 2023 because Radboud University will celebrate our 100th anniversary on 17 October. That will mark 100 years of playing a significant role in the lives of our students, researchers and staff, and in the world around us.
The Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, and the Faculty of Law will also celebrate their 100th anniversaries, and Nijmegen School of Management will celebrate its 35th anniversary. You can read more about 100 years of Radboud University at www.ru.nl/100.
A guiding strategy
The university’s strategic vision proved to be a guide. Van Krieken: “We developed our current strategy after the previous Executive Board’s strategy, that was very specific, had achieved almost all its objectives. As a new board, we began a dialogue with many people in our academic community and beyond, and we developed a strategy that mainly sets a direction. This proved very useful during the pandemic. Take, for example, the premise that we are fundamentally a campus-based university. That guided our decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic: wherever possible, we wanted to be on campus or organise in-person education in large venues off campus, such as Concert Hall De Vereeniging.”
“The first day of the 2022 orientation week for first-year students on campus was a high point for me”, Wigboldus says. “Students crowded past stalls set up by associations from the Berchmanianum to the Erasmus building.
“Many students were eager to get back to campus. Not only the first-year students, but also the senior students who staffed the many stalls promoting their associations. Our main concern is with the group that are now third-year students. Their first two years were spent entirely under coronavirus measures. Remarkably, they achieved excellent study results, but now we need to make it clear what the added value of being on campus is. Passing your exams is an important part of being a student, but you learn so much more about yourself and others by actively participating in all that our campus has to offer alongside your studies. That’s another part you hope everyone gets to experience. You may not earn study credits for self-knowledge, but it still offers important lessons. Student wellbeing is an important aspect for us.
“You may not earn study credits for self-knowledge, but it still offers important lessons”
“We are still learning how to look at education. On that front, a crisis can also lead to new insights: digital communication has received a huge boost. We have partly returned to regular education, but, for example, the knowledge clips that students can watch online are proving to be a fantastic way to deepen the material. It emerged that students could take various paths to pass their exams. They have shown tremendous adaptability in that regard.”
On the scientific front, the university received due recognition in 2022. Van Krieken: “We submitted large Growth Fund applications, as well as applications for a grant from the Gravitation programme. The university also won many awards in 2022. For example, we received an Ammodo Science Award and a Spinoza Prize and a Stevin Prize as well as a – somewhat under-reported in the media – Comenius Leadership Fellowship grant.”
Wigboldus: “As a university, we must continue to stand for the usefulness of useless knowledge. You don’t know what you’ll get if you invest in fundamental research, but you can be sure that if you don’t invest in it, you will get nothing. There is no better investment than investing in knowledge and knowledge creation. But you shouldn’t invest in it just to solve a specific problem in the short term. Our core values are curiosity, connectedness and reflectiveness. It’s crucial that academics and students are free to pursue their curiosity. Society has many problems, and there is a great belief in the ability of technological developments, of science, to solve those problems. But it is not true that when a virus appears, scientists do some tinkering and suddenly there is a vaccine within a year. This year, biochemical researcher Professor Katalin Karikó received an Honorary Doctorate from Radboud University. She has been researching mRNA for decades. Against the odds and driven by her own curiosity, she laid the groundwork for vaccinations that ultimately saved millions of lives worldwide during the pandemic. Her speech at our Dies Natalis celebration in 2022 was impressive.”
“Digital communication has received a huge boost”
Revaluation of the campus
Wigboldus also finds positive aspects in the revaluation of the campus. “Before the pandemic, everyone was like a fish in the water on campus, unaware of how important that water actually is. Now we have experienced what it feels like to miss it, and we are more aware of the importance of togetherness and chance encounters.”
Muskens explains that the university is busy working on the plan for future campus development. “Several buildings are nearing the end of their technical lifespans, and they need to be replaced in the coming decades. For instance, we are in the process of collecting the initial requirements for the new premises for the Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. It is quite a puzzle because we want to properly address the issue of accommodation. In this respect, the requirements of the staff are essential, and we also want to build sustainably, keeping a good occupancy rate of the premises in mind. Overall, we can say that occupancy rates are lower than before the pandemic. After the pandemic, we see people searching for a new balance between working from home and working on campus. We are taking all these facets into account as we move forward with our campus plan. The added value of our campus is unique.”
Another important theme is social safety. “We have made significant steps in the past year”, Muskens says. “It’s important that we continue to work hard on this together, however complicated it sometimes may be. By discussing difficult situations, we can learn from each other. The code of conduct – which was drafted in the second quarter of 2022 in close consultation with the university’s participational bodies – goes into more detail about what we mean by acting with integrity. The code is also intended to create a situation in which employees can be held accountable for inadmissible behaviour.
“We have also taken steps to further support social safety. The ombudsperson for staff began work in January 2022, and the team of confidential advisors was further strengthened last year and now consists of 12 people. In October, a policy officer started work to focus on further strengthening policy on social safety. We discussed with the university’s participational bodies the intention to recruit an ombudsperson for students in 2023. Although we want to provide a socially safe environment for all our students and staff, we are aware that we do not always succeed in this yet. We will continue to work hard on this in 2023 and, moreover, shift the focus more towards prevention.” Other topics high on the vice chair’s agenda include cybersecurity and finances.
Cyber security is one of the focal points that affects the entire university. Muskens: “Steps once again have been taken at Radboud University to increase the university’s technical resilience. The CISO has further strengthened the organisation with a team, and plans have been made to appoint local information security officers at the faculties as well.” Since September, Muskens has chaired a steering group with the CISO, and with representatives from operations, education and research. That steering group will guide and prioritise the programmes related to security, so significant strides in information security will continue to be made across Radboud University in 2023. “Awareness of this issue has grown tremendously across all faculties.”
“Our own financial house is in order”, Muskens declares. “We are a solid, high-quality institution with good ratios. This also forms a solid starting point if we want to start fleshing out the campus plan. The financial reports contain few surprises. In 2022, too, we consciously aimed for a negative budget, specifically to attract extra staff to structurally reduce the workload. We ended up less negative than we had budgeted, in part because we could not always fill our vacancies in time. We used the extra resources in 2022 for collaborations with other universities and for interdisciplinary collaboration within our own university.
“When discussing annual plans and accountability with the faculties, implementing the strategy and objectives is always the main focus of the conversation. We then spend relatively less time on financial accountability because it is simply set up well.”
Speaking of objectives, the theme of the 2022-2023 academic year and the second half of this calendar year is opportunities. Those opportunities arise in many areas. Van Krieken: “This year, the Radboud Teachers Academy and the Pedagogical Sciences for Primary Education study programme organised a theme day about educational inequality: people who are less talented in cognitive areas but who have talents in other areas receive too little attention and appreciation. Furthermore, the government has invested heavily in higher education, so we need to think about how to spend that money properly. For example, by reducing employees’ workloads. That too is an opportunity.”
“As the Executive Board, we consider the tasks related to education, research and social impact to be equally important”, Van Krieken asserts. “In the daily practice of lecturers and researchers, research is often still valued higher than teaching, never mind the impact on society. There are still opportunities there too.”
Bringing those opportunities to fruition, and thus making the university’s social role even more visible, is one of the challenges for the coming year.